This morning, a beautiful rust-colored bird got into my screened porch. Greatly distressed, he flew against the screen, first on one side, then another. Seeing me, he grew more frightened; not thinking clearly, he repeatedly flew into the screen, attempting to escape.
I opened the screen door for his deliverance; to my sorrow, he continued to fly into the side where there was no exit. Moving to stand in front of the area he kept ramming, he ducked behind some plants. Then popping out again, although my arms were outstretched and I spoke gently, he flew inches from my face, hitting the screen I tried to protect him from.
Earlier, he had seen an opening that looked inviting; he entered. But, unable to leave, fear took over and drove him. Repeatedly bashing himself against the same spot wasn’t helpful, but triggered, Little Bird couldn’t think. He reacted; in his desperation, he became self-destructive – bruising himself as he struggled to be safe.
It took numerous failed attempts where he fell to the ground before he saw the open door. With a shake of his head, perhaps to clear his sight, he joyfully rose and dove out the opening, flying up into the sky, free as a bird!
What does this have to do with you? We can learn an important lesson about trauma here.
Your Brain Was Designed to Protect You
God designed your brain so, in extreme danger, your cerebral cortex (your thinking brain) is shut down by the amygdala. Two survival skills keeping you alive are flight or fight. During life-threatening danger, fear energizes you to move quickly. If you took time to stop and analyze things, your life would be further endangered.
Have you ever been like Little Bird? He wasn’t in extreme danger but he thought he was. Believing a lie, he was blind to the truth of the open door welcoming him to step into freedom. As I sought to protect him, and he flew inches from my face, though I didn’t hurt him, he saw me as dangerous.
The truth? I opened the door, providing him with a way of escape. As he rejected the open door, I watched, hurting each time he fell to the ground. Though he was afraid of me, I stood sentinel in front of the screen opposite the door, praying for him and trying to guide him to safety.
Your Reptilian or Emotional Brain
When your amygdala switches into gear, it activates your involuntary nervous system – setting off a physiological reaction in your body. In other words, as an involuntary action, you don’t have control over what your body does. Now when your life is being threatened, you need that lightning response.
Here’s the thing. If you experienced early childhood abuse or any other kind of unresolved trauma – your brain becomes hyper-vigilant in its desperate attempt to keep you safe. On the alert 24/7, your brain continually throws you into a fight, flee, or freeze mode to survive. For you to remain in survival mode for hours and days and even years is exhausting. God planned the survival mode to last seconds or minutes – just enough to give you a burst of strength to quickly escape.
Past Trauma Triggers Your Survival Response
Unresolved trauma has the power to trigger you back into that event by a sound, a flash of color, or a scent; where your brain believes the danger is happening right now in the present.
I was at the hospital with a young woman I’ll call Helen. She wanted a cigarette, so I pushed her wheelchair outdoors.
One moment she was fine.
Seeing a white car in the parking lot – the same color as the one in which she had been abducted, she was triggered.
In a flash, her amygdala took over, her autonomic nervous system kicked into gear, and she froze, momentarily unable to breathe. No amount of reassurance helped; her rational brain could not logically work out she was safe. Despite an armed police officer standing alert on one side of her and me standing on her other side, blocking anyone from getting near her, she couldn’t experience the reality of the moment.
Against her will, Helen’s reptilian brain threw her into the freeze survival mode, causing her body to shut down. Taking her where she couldn’t see the vehicle, then standing in front of her, I leaned down; speaking gently, I touched her hand. She took a deep ragged breath and began to be grounded in the present. Only then was she able to look into my eyes and express what she had been reliving.
The Fourth Survival Skill
Perhaps you have heard of flashbacks or even been told you were having an emotional flashback.
When that happens, unresolved memories stored in the hippocampus cause you to experience all the emotions of the trauma; in other words, Helen was reliving the assault as if it was happening at that moment in time. Once she calmed, she was able to give the officer vital information she had forgotten but which was awakened by seeing the white car.
With habitual abuse, especially in children who suffer neglect and ongoing abuse, the child initially tries to run away or fight to protect herself. Especially with addiction or alcoholism, that triggers the parent or caregiver to become violent, which then moves the child into the third survival response. She freezes as her brain takes over and tries to protect her by shutting down her emotions and pain level.
Peter Walker has done interesting research leading to the recognition of the fourth survival skill, which he named Fawn. It has lately come to be known as the Please/Appease response.
Over time, freezing – where the child numbs her heart and dissociates to reduce pain – leads to this fourth survival response, which is fawning. Desperate to be safe, she moves in hyper-vigilance, seeking to please and appease those around her in an attempt to deflect their anger or abuse.
This is not God’s intention for you.
If You’re Not In Control, What Can You Do?
When your thinking brain is turned off, and you beat the air – you aren’t in control of yourself. This causes your reptilian brain to come under the authority of the kingdom of darkness and that is what controls you.
Scripture is clear. Whatsoever is not of faith is sin – when the flesh makes your decisions, the enemy of your soul can deceive you and hold you captive – even though an open door stands before you.
Remember earlier I mentioned Little Bird’s last fall to the ground? Stunned, he then shook his head.
When animals are traumatized, they literally tremble or shake – throwing off the frozen state caused by the trauma – allowing them to escape danger.
We can learn from Little Bird. If your body begins to tremble after being triggered, don’t worry. That is healthy. Trauma is stored in the body, so trembling or shaking releases unprocessed energy, which helps promote escaping the sensation of being trapped.
Peter Levine speaks of trembling, shaking, the urge to run – using movement for the “release of thwarted survival energy bound in the body”. You may find it helpful after being triggered, to literally shake off the overwhelming feelings of imminent danger.
Telling yourself, “I am safe” as you shake your hands will help switch you out of your autonomic (involuntary) nervous system and back into your parasympathetic nervous system, allowing your prefrontal cortex to come back online so you can think with clarity. Even though you’re brain has made you feel helpless, there are things you can do to take back ownership of your own body.
Find Your Safety in Jesus
The Bible says, Look to Jesus, the Author and the Finisher of your salvation. Jesus, who rose from the dead, is the Open Door to life and freedom. Though it may not feel like He is with you, or He may feel scary to you – He stands grieving with you – as He seeks to guide you to safety.
You and I do not need to try to make ourselves safe. If we do, we are like Little Bird – hitting himself in the head – getting nowhere except to cloud his thinking and upset his central nervous system.
Dear Heart, these six things will help you move forward.
- When you are frightened or angry – look to Jesus to be your safety.
- Verbalize: “I am safe. Jesus is here with me.”
- Shake your hands and body to release trauma energy.
- Invite Jesus to be LORD of your situation.
- Reject the lie of the enemy. If you experience ongoing fear it means there is a lie you are receiving as your truth.
- Then open God’s Word and claim a specific truth to counter the fear.
Paul says God has given you the mind of Christ! Isn’t that amazing?
You have a choice – clinging to what doesn’t work or else making the decision right now when your brain is foggy or shuts down to say, “Lord Jesus, I want your mind so I can think clearly.”
Pray with me:
Thank you, Lord Jesus – you are the Door. Please stand between me and danger. Help me trust you when I am afraid. Help me have courage to step through the Door, to rest in your safety.
Jesus, please be LORD of me, of my situation, over the danger confronting me. Be LORD of me – spirit, soul, and body – help me walk in obedience to your will.
In Jesus’ name, I reject the spirit of fear. It does not belong to me. What time I am afraid, angry, or confused – I will trust in Jesus, who is the Resurrection and the Life.
Father God, please help me learn to put on the mind of Christ, so I walk in love and freedom.
Thank you for your perfect love that casts out fear. I choose Life. I choose Jesus. Amen.